Music of the Civil War

Music of the Civil War

Molly Mason admits she didn't know much about Civil War music when she and her husband, Jay Ungar, were tapped by Ken Burns to play the haunting soundtrack for "The Civil War" PBS-TV series. (Ungar wrote the now-famous "Ashokan Farewell" used by Burns as the epic documentary's theme.) "We...

Molly Mason admits she didn’t know much about Civil War music when she and her husband, Jay Ungar, were tapped by Ken Burns to play the haunting soundtrack for “The Civil War” PBS-TV series. (Ungar wrote the now-famous “Ashokan Farewell” used by Burns as the epic documentary’s theme.) “We didn’t watch the footage,” Mason says of the recording session for the soundtrack, “but Burns gave us emotional guidance for the music.”

After they watched the series, Mason and Ungar began to read about the Civil War, visit battle sites and, naturally, look into the music of that period. Mason’s favorite source is a book called Heart Songs: Melodies of Days Gone By. Published in 1907, the book was based on a poll by a popular magazine of the day, asking readers to select their favorite songs. “The book contains light arias that people would have known, Civil War favorites and parlor songs,” she says.

The fact that people were still singing Civil War era-songs in the early 1900s interested her. One of her favorites is “The Faded Coat of Blue” from 1862, which she learned out of the book, as well as the Stephen Foster song, “Gentle Annie.”

“The music industry then&#151the songwriting boom and business&#151is so similar to today,” says Mason. “People scribbling on paper in their offices, crumbling up what they’ve written and throwing it away, trying to write a song that will stir the public fancy. And like today there were ones that were great songs and ones that were chaff that in six months fell by the wayside.” The songs that became classics, she says, lived and went out into the folk world. “They jumped off the printed page and were passed down from generation to generation.”

Sources for Ungar and Mason’s period music include:

  • Swinging Door Music, 987 Route 28a, West Hurley, NY 12491, www.jayandmolly.com
  • “The Civil War” Soundtrack, cassette, Grammy Award-winning soundtrack to the acclaimed PBS series. (Elektra/Nonesuch, $10)
  • Civil War Classics, CD, recording of a concert by Ungar and Mason sponsored by the Civil War Institute and broadcast by NPR. (Fiddle & Dance Records, $15)
  • American Dreamer, CD, an essential Stephen Foster collection sung by baritone Thomas Hampson and accompanied by Ungar, Mason and others.(Angel Records, $15)

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